Poet’s Pantry

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In my sliver of the world, poetry and cooking share many qualities. When I step into the kitchen, I often have only a vaporous notion of what’s for dinner. A hankering for roasted poblano peppers, the need to use a protein languishing in the refrigerator, the memory of an herbal breeze wafting down a terraced hill near Lago d’Averno, Hell’s entrance, according to Virgil, or even a single intriguing word, may spark what comes next. But the success of what follows depends upon the ingredients at hand, on how we’ve stocked the pantry. Good products beget better results. Let’s take my desire for roasted poblanos. What to do with them? Poking around, I uncover an opened package of goat cheese, a bit of grated grana padano and some creme fraiche, and I immediately think pasta! Looking further I spot arugula, a lemon, a handful of pecans, some cherry tomatoes. Dinner: Pappardelle with a roasted poblano and goat cheese sauce, garnished with toasted pecans, served with an arugula and cherry tomato salad dressed with a lemon vinaigrette. Simple, when you’ve stocked a solid base of quality components.

My writing employs a similar process. Anything – a vague sense of uneasiness, a particular word, the sunlight slanting through the unfortunate dove’s imprint on my window, articles or books I’ve read or perused on a myriad of subjects – may launch a poem. But what truly makes the poem, what bolsters, fills and completes, what ignites and catapults it arcing into the firmament are, of course, the pantry’s ingredients.

Everyone’s needs differ, and I wouldn’t presume to inflict my peculiar sensibilities on anyone, but if you cracked open my burgeoning poetry pantry’s door, you’d certainly unearth dictionaries and a thesaurus, fallen stars, books on etymology and language, curiosity, a guitar or mandolin, at least one window (sometimes partially open), conversations floating in the ether, various empty frames, wind, dog biscuits and dirty socks, a walking stick, sunlight and shadows, more books on such subjects as ancient navigation, the history of numbers, the periodic table, alchemy and olives. You might also spy reams of paper, unspoken words, coffee cups, a scorpion or two, scrawled notes on index cards, wandering musical notes, a pipe wrench, wood ear mushrooms and salvaged fragments of writing, failed ideas moldering in clumps on the floor, a few craft beers and empty wine bottles, a chain saw, and most important of all, a bucketful of patience.

(I cannot over-emphasize the bucket’s contents…)

This is just to say (no, I didn’t eat the plums) that the best equipped poets stock their pantries with the world and all its questions, with logic, with faith, persistence, emotion, science, art, romance and yes, patience. Line your kit with every tool you can grasp or imagine. Keep adding to it. Read deeply. Listen. Breathe. Listen again. Converse. Look outward. Further, past the trees, around the bend and beyond the horizon’s curve, where the unknown lurks. Look again. Don’t stop. Continue.

And if after all this you’re wondering what basks in my kitchen pantry:

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This was originally posted in January, 2014. I’m attending a conference and unable to tend the blog, so a few reposts are forthcoming over the next few days.

Morning Covers You

eye camera

Morning Covers You

1

We extract
light, bleeding
it out one

diamond-shaped
hole after
another.

Finger the results.
Remediation
in form

or placement
to best
advantage?

At night
loneliness cradles
our bones.

2

You arrange our bodies to greater effect,
presuming lesser horrors
to be less.

A list emerges.
Refuting one,
accepting another.

Choices fixed.
Ecstasies of failure
purged.

Morning covers you
like a blue
shroud, so pale.

So cold
and bitter.

This originally appeared in Boston Poetry Magazine in April, 2014.

diamond fence

Incongruities

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Years ago, I worked in a library…

Incongruities

So little depends
upon

the half-Japanese
bookman

reading Italian
haiku

in the Texas
library.

Once again, my apologies to William Carlos Williams, whose poetry inspires and therefore often bears the brunt of my little diversions into whimsy.

image

December Moon (1999)

december moon

December Moon (1999)

If loneliness breathes,
then rain is its heart,

always falling to its lowest point
before receding. Water graces us

daily in all its forms – the slowest
drop, the line of ice on the wall,

your breath, so soft and even
in the cool night. But no one,

no thing, can fill the void of
departure. You exhale and turn

away, and the air, with its empty
arms, embraces the space

you’ve left. I feel this daily,
whenever we part. At forty-one

I’ve known you half my life
but have loved you even longer,

through the millennium’s demise
and all that preceded or follows.

The brightest moon for a century to come
is but a shadow in your light.

It’s hard to believe that I wrote this nearly sixteen years ago. Busy with books, work and life, I didn’t write much in the nineties. But this, the last poem of that decade, recently surfaced. The sentiments are as true today as they were then. I am a lucky man.

streetfog

Having Survived Myself I Lean Away

Survival

Having Survived Myself I Lean Away 

You know that
but not
why

the mockingbird mocks,
or how one note

marries others,
forming blissful

chords. And the skies
flaring each night

betraying your willful
ignorance,

while you paint
the words for love

in seven languages
you can’t
speak.

Where are you now,

whose bodies
have you denied,

wrapped in linen,
bagged or boxed,
arriving unseen?

Sagging, I observe your
counted victories, the
smirk claiming

exceptionalism
and destiny or
nobility of purpose,

as even your own shadow
recoils.

cemetery

Which Poet, Which Beer (2)

pint

Tastes change. In my younger years I preferred sweeter brown ales, eschewed hoppier, bitter beverages, and seldom branched out. Nowadays, I lean heavily towards the bitter, and when the opportunity presents itself, feel compelled to sample the unknown. Thus when I spied Alaskan Brewing Company’s Alaskan Jalapeño Imperial IPA on tap, I had no choice but to order a pint. We may not normally place the words Alaska and jalapeño alongside each other, but if this Imperial IPA is any indication, perhaps we should. With an odor of hops and capsicum, it felt smooth on the tongue, a little malty, even earthy. Not  complex at the outset, but subtle, defying definition and developing over time, in the way a good poem develops. My only complaint would be the lack of heat. But hey, I’m from Texas, and we do jalapeños. This is a beer of multiple cultures, a blend of distinct identities. I think of Joan Naviyuk Kane, and her first book, The Cormorant Hunter’s Wife, in which she writes in “Antistrophic”

Instead of out, I am in,
Trying at the old habit of imperfect definition
As well as the less familiar,
Between falling gold

Kane’s narrative, her mythology and landscape, are not mine, yet they invite me in and envelop my senses, allowing synthesis, acceptance, to occur.

But sometimes I crave the unadorned. The Lone Pint Brewery’s Yellowrose IPA, a single malt, single hop concoction, startled me. Surprisingly mellow in the mouth, it imparts grapefruit and perhaps pineapple with a hint of something I can’t readily identify. Strong yet delicate, infinitely interesting, Yellowrose is most definitely a celebration of simplicity and craft – a few ingredients combined to create magic. Which may also describe Christina Davis’s book An Ethic. Spare in nature, her work transcends the limits of language, the borders of the page. Her poems blossom anew with each reading, and the farther away I move from them, the more I long to return:

”All Those That Wander,” in its entirety:

After the ark survived the Flood,
it was taken apart
to be made into cages.

This is the nature of religion.

Of course my curiosity leads me down other paths, too. Infamous Brewing Company’s Sweep the Leg peanut butter stout pours with a small head, and tastes of rich malts and coffee, with a little cocoa and, of course, subtle peanut tones. An opaque, dark brown or black, with minimal carbonation, exuding stillness, it isn’t quite what I anticipated, with the peanut butter flavor a tad muted. But the mouthfeel is spot on, and the aftertaste lingers, leaving me requesting more of this unlikely combination, and reminding me of Charles Simic’s  Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell, in which he imparts, through prose poems, the experience of viewing Cornell’s enigmatic art. Nothing is quite as you expect it should or could be, yet you go on, somehow understanding. He writes in “Secret Toy”:

In a secret room in a secret house his secret toy sits
listening to its own stillness.

Simic offers openings into Cornell’s art, explains the unexplainable without explanation. I stare into the pint of Sweep the Leg, and find my own stillness. I read Simic and find another. This is what I seek in poetry, what I want in good beer. I have found it.

blackbeer